“How to Be Black” by Baratunde Thurston

“How to Be Black” by Baratunde ThurstonHow to Be Black by Baraturnde Thurston
Published: 2012 by HarperCollins
Genres: Humor, Nonfiction
Pages: 254
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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I bought How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston because I thought it would make a hilarious coffee table book and/or conversation piece.  Race is one of those taboo topics that people (myself included) aren’t comfortable talking about.  Since Baratunde Thurston writes for The Onion, I hoped he’d be able to talk about racial issues with humor and levity.  I’d consider it a success.

How to Be Black is hard to categorize.  It’s part humor, part education, and part memoir.  It’s designed to make you think, but it’s also lighthearted.  The author alternates between a memoir-style format that describes the role that race played in his own life and satirical lists of anecdotes influenced by a panel of writers and experts, including a token white guy.  It’s tongue-in-cheek, and designed to get you out of your comfort zone.  Panelists address racially-charged questions like “How Black Are You?” and “Can you swim?”  There are satirical how-to sections involving how to get involved in politics, how to be the black friend, and being black in the workplace.  Thurston’s main point throughout the book is that it’s important to embrace your own uniqueness, and that’s an important message for anyone to learn.  You don’t have to conform to other people’s expectations, but just be yourself.

Baratunde Thurston grew up in Washington, DC.  As a transplant to the area, it was very interesting for me to see what it was like for people who grew up here.  Thurston’s childhood was rather unique.  His mom was an ex-hippie government employee, and his absent father was a drug addict.  His neighborhood was rough (it was the 80s, after all), but on the other hand, we also got to see Thurston’s experiences attending the Sidwell Friends School.   For all of you non-DC/politico types, Sidwell Friends is the super pretentious expensive exclusive school that Chelsea Clinton and the Obama girls attend(ed).  It’s one of the top schools in the country.  Readers get to see a contrast between some of the major problems of the crack epidemic and the life of a somewhat sheltered kid growing up on the periphery and learning how to function in two different worlds.

I do think that the book achieved its objective.  It was funny and it made me think.  There was only one minor thing that annoyed me.  I’ve been living in the DC area for about 8 years now.  There’s a certain obnoxious type of yuppie here who can’t resist the urge to namedrop all the important people that he/she knows and has worked with over the years and to brag about his/her career at every opportunity, whether or not it is relevant.  The author is one of these people, and the book would have been better if he would have taken out a little bit of the “guess-who-I-know-at-the-Washington-Post” references.

So, there you have it.  How to Be Black is smart, funny, is a great starting point to thinking about racial issues because Thurston is able to make readers feel comfortable while discussing a topic that most people are uncomfortable talking about.  I’d definitely recommend it.

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